Thoughts of a Liturgist on “Of Gods and Men”

I have just come from viewing “Of Gods and Men” (Des hommes et des dieux), a 2010 film in French and Arabic with English subtitles, directed by Xavier Beauvois. I would STRONGLY recommend it to the readers of Pray Tell. The film won the Grand Prix (2nd highest award) at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as both the Cesar and Lumiere awards for best film of 2010. It is based on an incident in 1996 when seven Trappist monks were found beheaded in Algeria. Was this the action of Islamist terrorists or of a faction of the Algerian military? The case remains unsolved to this day, but the focus of the film is on what would have led a group of Christian monks to remain living and praying in a Muslim area where their lives are increasingly in danger from civil unrest.

There are three reasons why I think it is important for liturgists to view this film. First, there is no debate about liturgical practices or texts shown anywhere in the film. Now I suspect that there might have been such debates in real life, but they clearly do not hold center stage in the lives of these Trappists. We see them praying and singing various sections of the Divine Office and of the Eucharist in their small chapel, mostly in French, though ending Compline one evening with a Marian antiphon in Latin. What I loved was how ordinary the liturgy was for these folks, how the personal quirks of individual monks blended into a common action of prayer, how the choreography of the rite had become second nature so that the community could engage full, conscious and active participation without self-consciousness.

Second, if I may be VERY personal, the serenity and balance of the monks’ lives embodies precisely why I was and am attracted to the practice and study of the liturgy. The monks make and market honey, visit the local village for an Islamic ceremony in which they participate as appropriate, plow and plant fields, interact with village and government officials, run a clinic, and dispense advice when asked. They prepare and eat meals together, hold chapter meetings around a table on which a single candle burns, write letters, engage in spiritual reading, pursue their own devotional prayer and receive visitors. The Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Eucharist are of a piece with the rest of their lives: the words of the liturgical texts illuminate not only the round of feasts but the meaning of their activities, challenging, comforting and transforming them over the long haul. They are not prissy aesthetes or superficial purveyors of cheap bonhomie. They are people who take seriously the consequences of what baptism means (as one powerful scene between two of the monks makes clear.) It was this integration of personal growth in holiness, a passion for charity and justice, and a love for the sacramental worship of the Church that caught my heart and imagination 50 some years ago and still keeps me going today. Given the acrimony over the state of liturgical renewal in the English speaking world, it is very heartening to me to see depicted on the screen what this integral life might look like.

Finally, as a church musician I was especially touched by the chants sung by the actors portraying the monks in the film. They include pieces by Joseph Gelineau and Lucien Deiss as well as standard liturgical dialogues. Breathtaking, however, are some of the hymns by Didier Rimaud. I have had the privilege of singing some of his biblically evocative texts at meetings of Universa Laus and have marveled at the poetic insight and spiritual depth of his imagery. The following phrases stick in my memory, although I know the French originals are much more powerful and I have probably altered the translation since reading the subtitles: “…separating sand from water, / you created the earth like a cradle / to receive this Child of infinite love…” (a hymn for Christmas Eve) “…and yet you have a heart / for you love the prodigal son / and hold this sinner to your breast, / this ruined world…” Like many of the texts of Huub Oosterhuis, I am seared by the power and the beauty of these texts and would so love to sing them in liturgical contexts.

Finally, I think what makes the film so powerful for me is the palpable sense of communion and love that binds together the diverse personalities of the monks and radiates in their interchanges with the villagers, the terrorists, and the army officials. They witness to a love that passes understanding. The liturgy that holds my heart passes understanding as well; it is the offer and celebration of God’s fragile, defenseless, broken, tortured, murdered, risen, radiant, powerful, silent, mysterious, triumphant Love for us and our awe-filled and humble gratitude that such a Love could be real.

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24 comments

  1. My local store said that this would not be available until April. Perhaps I will get it in France. Until then I recommend readers to see Indigènes, (Days of Glory) about Arab soldiers who fought in the French army to liberate France in 1944 and were badly treated by the French. This may help to explain the dislike of all things French by some in North Africa.
    Please also consider supporting the Church in counties where Christians suffer, notably in Palestine and Pakistan.

  2. Not yet available on Netflix; it is on the “SAVE” tab.

    Thank you for the recommendation, Michael.

    Thank you for enriching the liturgy.

  3. Your ringing endorsement of this film makes me want to run out and see it (unfortunately, it is not playing in Rhode Island!) I hardly know which of your beautifully positive points stands out to me the most, as they all contribute to making the film sound VERY attractive. But the mention of Rimaud’s texts caught my eye – I have always loved how the text “There Is Nothing Known” expresses the magnitude of Mary’s discipleship by contrasting it with the phrase “there is nothing known about this woman……except”
    Is there a collection of his texts out there? You know of my interest in hymn texts!

  4. Linda,

    I’m unaware of any collection of his hymn texts in English. There are a series of them published primarily by CERF in France. Paul Inwood, whose total fluency in both English and French remains a marvel to me (I can read French fairly easily, and can understand simple spoken French, but I cannot speak it for the life of me, being cursed with an accent tres horrible), would probably have the best leads where we might find Rimaud’s texts in English or if there is a project to make his work available to Anglophones. Paul?

    1. “but I cannot speak it for the life of me, being cursed with an accent tres horrible)”

      Lol! My accent was honed at great cost, after 8 years of French – 4 with native speakers! I took a brief look at CERF and wasn’t able to find anything under his name – will try again! Paul???

  5. Thanks to Michael for his thoughtful reflections.

    The movie opens tonight (here in Portland, OR).

    My parish is organizing a “field trip” to the movie. It will be followed by an opportunity to return to the parish for hospitality and group discussion of the movie.

  6. What struck me powerfully was the open air left in the liturgy for silent prayer. While watching it a second time, I realized that the reverent sense of sacred space and sacred time, was more than just reverence. The brothers were unhurried and attentive to God’s presence, opening themselves to and listening actively for God’s voice while also being present to each other. Bravo to Xavier Beauvois and his actors for taking us into this moment.

  7. Heading to see the movie right now. A parish is sponsoring a trip – what a great idea for a parish. If only………

    Tom – what do you expect – it is St. Louis?

    Paul Inwood – if you get a chance, would suggest sharing some of Mr. Rimaud’s works with Bishop Lynch and Kathy Leos – would love to hear that music and have zilch opportunity in the rest of my diocese.

    Fr. Joncas – have the same inherent problem with French…in fact, my 18 yr. old daughter dies of embarrassment every time I speak French (with my own Texas twang added).

  8. Re: the comment about being bored by the film. I suspect the critic would have been even more fatigued by another film favorite of mine: “Into Great Silence,” a documentary of the life of monks at La Grande Chartreuse.

    I think it is difficult to convey states of soul in a visual/aural medium, but both of these films come as close to doing so as I expect to experience. The pacing is anything but Hollywood, but that may be the point. The only point where I felt the director may have gone “over the top” in _Of Gods and Men_ is in a supper scene in which the monks share a couple of bottles of wine and listen to a selection from Swan Lake, but even this was redeemed by the facial close-ups.

    Roger Ebert’s criticism lay not with the film as such as with the choices the characters made: by simply re-locating to another place the monks could have continued their good work in this world for decades without being senselessly slaughtered. This perfectly “reasonable” insight points up the paradoxical logic of the cross that ultimately impels the monks, a logic given expression in the discussions the monks have in chapter, in various conversations, and in a powerful prayer that sounds in voice over toward the end of the film. The choice to treat everyone with love, as neighbor, without measuring out that love based on the other’s “worthiness” is, by the world’s logic, naive, foolish, impossible, and yet, as the monks’ lives witness, it lies at the core of Christian witness.

  9. Bill deHaas :

    Heading to see the movie right now. A parish is sponsoring a trip – what a great idea for a parish. If only………
    Tom – what do you expect – it is St. Louis?

    PLEASE do not slam St. Louis to a fourth generation resident and nephew of one of its mayors.

    It is entirely possible that a special interest in liturgy could overcome an inherently boring movie.

  10. Mike Joncas: Paul Inwood, whose total fluency in both English and French remains a marvel to me (I can read French fairly easily, and can understand simple spoken French, but I cannot speak it for the life of me, being cursed with an accent tres horrible), would probably have the best leads where we might find Rimaud’s texts in English or if there is a project to make his work available to Anglophones. Paul?

    Mike, thank you for the compliment. I know of no such project, alas, but would be delighted to be part of one. I think one of the problems is that English-language publishers do not understand the nuances of French spirituality. If someone can find the sponsorship, I’d be more than happy to take on the task of rendering the beautiful Rimaud texts into English. Only a small number of them have been translated so far.

    I have loved Didier’s writings for many years, and did translate a few of them, but always when asked to do so (by Didier himself) for the purposes of musical settings by others (Scouarnec, Villeneuve, etc), when the text had to to be further tailored to fit the music so that it could be plurilingual.

    He was not only a phenomenal textualist, but a phenomenal man. I drove 600+ miles overnight (and the same back) to be at his funeral in Lyon. The large church was packed, from bishops to people who had never met him but had been touched by his texts. The French-speaking Church has not yet recovered from his absence.

  11. This is a great review. Thank you. I saw the movie when it came out in France. I followed the events when they took place and read the Last Will and Testament of Christian de Chergé when it was released. Since seeing the movie I have visited Tamié where several of the monks came from.
    There is something in their story that makes one want, long for some sort of similar life in one’s way…

  12. Very powerful movie – almost three hours long. Actually, loved the dinner scene with wine and Swan Lake – the close ups of their faces and eyes is dynamic.

    Their whole lives are ritual – noted that:
    – all liturgies are eucharist or the hours
    – no scenes that detract by using Marian images, sacramentals, miracles, etc.
    – the language and living actions are the paschal mystery by the communities – the village, the monastery, each monk…the focus on this is the power of the movie and the story
    – IMO, the director did a great job of explaining why the monks chose to stay; to explain their reasons and understandings which went beyond an “easy” martrydom issue (in some ways it echoed his earlier film, The Mission, only in that movie you had Jesuits who chose to die and some who chose to fight)

    What struck me the most was the community discernment process – each monk taking the time to come to a decision that was respected by all. No polarizations, no easy, facile condemnations, etc.

  13. Bill,

    Thanks for your insight about the community discernment process. Now I realize another reason why viewing the film was so moving for me: unlike the acrimony I perceive in many of our ecclesial and societal discussions, the process of discernment in the film really did involve listening to all the voices of the community with “no polarization, no easy, facile condemnations. etc.” In fact, Christian, their leader, was gently but pointedly taken to task early in the film for arrogating decision-making for the community to himself.

  14. Yes, well spoken, Michael. Lilliam and I saw it today.
    This work of art turns Dostoevsky’s remark on its head: it might open the hearts of many to faith, and the sung liturgy plays an integral part in that. It is certainly a celebration of community in so many aspects, and not just inside the monastery.

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